I know that I am not in the minority when I say I had a serious procrastination problem. For me, my wake up call was my PhD. You have three to four years to write a thesis. If you procrastinate, you’re royally screwed.
My procrastination habits were already pretty bad, and they were made even worse by my clinical depression. For months and months I was like an engine that couldn’t start up properly. My severe anxiety and stress would prevent me from even starting to read or write.
The good news is I eventually made a very significant breakthrough, and it didn’t involve any fancy techniques.
I simply used a pen and a notebook.
After months of self-scrutiny, I managed to pin down the reason for my procrastination onto one main thing: the avoidance of anxiety.
Let me illustrate. You have a big deadline coming up. You sit down to try to start. But because there is so much to do, you can’t quite figure out what the next step is. And oh my gosh think about all the work you need to do. Think about how this task is far too big to start, and even worse, you can’t think of the perfect way to do it. AAAAAH!
Before you know it you are clicking on Facebook and are looking at photographs of people you don’t care about. This all happens at lightning speed. Each time you open up Microsoft Word to start working again, that wall of anxiety hits you, and your default mode becomes avoidance.
In order to escape this never ending spiral, you first need to understand the following: anxiety is caused by not being in the present.
If you are asked whether there is anything you are unhappy about in general, I’m sure you could produce an endless list of things from not getting a pay-rise to your partner not giving you the attention you need. But if you ask yourself whether there is anything you are unhappy about in this very moment in time, it is highly likely that the answer is no (unless you are, at this moment, being tortured brutally by some terrorist group…in which case why are you reading this blog?).
Anxiety is caused by thinking about the past or the future, instead of embracing the present. Instead of focusing on the very next step that has to be done, you get swept away by all the things that you have to do in the future. You worry endlessly.
In step the pen and notebook.
Everyday I would sit down, open my notebook, and think only about what the very next step was. I really broke it down into the basics. Some days the first line was “Switch on the computer”, and once I’d done that, “Open Word document”. Once I got the ball rolling I could start making the next steps “Read first paragraph of journal paper” or “Type in first line of excel data”.
Essentially, it was a mindfulness technique that kept me focused on the present or the very, very near future at most. This prevented me from getting sucked into the tornado of anxiety. Because I was creating myself tiny baby steps that were guaranteed to be achievable, I wouldn’t panic. I could see how I was going to proceed. Plus I was constantly rewarding myself by ticking off all the things that I had finished. Tiny victories, but achieved nonetheless!
I also stopped worrying about whether I would finish in time, or whether the work was good enough (perfectionism is a common trait among those who procrastinate). I knew that using this notebook method I was working the best that I could at the fastest pace sensibly possible. So I just had to trust that so long as I kept this going, I was on the right track.
Thanks to this notebook technique for the rest of my PhD I managed to work consistently, in a focused manner. Procrastination is manageable. The key is to admit that you have a problem, and then to discover the truth behind why it’s occurring in the first place. The most important thing is to not beat yourself up about it. To get angry at yourself for procrastinating is to only make your anxiety worse. Remember that you are a human being, and that we are not perfect. Accept that you feel anxious, take a deep breath, and pick up your pen and notebook. It’s never too late to start.